On Mt. Sinai, Moses asks the Lord to show him his glory. So God passes his glorious presence before him and delivers this profound description of his nature:
The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. (Ex. 34:6)
This description of God, that he is “gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, abounding in loving-kindness…” is quoted nine times in the Old Testament, more than any other text. It’s found several times in the psalms (Ps. 86:15, 103:8, 145:8 and others) and was probably part of worship liturgies during Bible times.
Because these are God’s own revelation about himself, they are some of the most important words in all of the Bible about the nature of God. They begin with God saying his divine name, so holy that for thousands of years Jews, including Jesus, do not utter it out loud, even to this day. Then they describe God’s great mercy, patience and willingness to forgive even the worst sin.
Today Judaism refers to this passage in Exodus 34 as the “Thirteen Attributes of God,” counting thirteen ways God’s mercy is described, though some are not obvious as we read it. Jewish people still recite this every morning as part of their congregational prayers and every time they read from the Torah. On Yom Kippur, the day of Atonement, and on other fast days, many prayers focus on this verse.
But What About the Next Verse?
You might be surprised that when Exodus 34:6 is quoted elsewhere in the Bible, usually the next line is not included even though it seems to be part of God’s self-revelation:
…Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation. (Ex. 34:7)
Why is this? You probably find this line troubling, so you might be relieved that it is left off. But it this picking and choosing of quoted texts allowable? Yes, say rabbinic scholars, because of a pronouncement God made in Ezekiel 18, which says that innocent children are not punished for the sins of their fathers:
If a man is righteous and does what is just and right, … walks in my statutes, and keeps my rules by acting faithfully—he is righteous; he shall surely live, declares the Lord GOD.
If he fathers a son who is violent, a shedder of blood, who does any of these things… though he himself did none of these things, he shall not live. He has done all these abominations; he shall surely die; his blood shall be upon himself. (Ezekiel 18:5-12, excerpted)
Because of Ezekiel 18, the rabbis interpret Exodus 34:7 about God’s punishment of later generations as only applicable as long as the children do not repent, but carry on in their father’s sin. While God does not let the unrepentant go unpunished, he is ultimately forgiving. Therefore, in Jewish prayers (as well as in the rest of the Bible), the focus is on the first verse about his mercy.
God’s Frustrating Graciousness
In the book of Jonah, you might be surprised that the Exodus 34 passage is used in anger toward God. God sent Jonah to Ninevah to warn them of God’s judgment, and Jonah ran the other way to Tarshish. Why? Jonah knew about the incredible cruelty of the Assyrians in war, who were well-known for the horrific things they did to their prisoners. He knew that of all peoples, they deserved punishment.
Finally, he did go to Ninevah to tell them to repent, and they did! When God saw how they turned from their evil ways, he did not bring the destruction he had threatened — and Jonah was outraged at God’s mercy. We read:
He prayed to the LORD, “O LORD, is this not what I said when I was still at home? That is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, O LORD, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.” (Jonah 3:10-4:3)
It is amazing to hear that Jonah is so furious with God for his forgiveness that he wishes he was dead. What a contrast between the emotions of sinful humanity and the grace of a holy, but compassionate God! While we usually look to the New Testament for stories of God’s mercy, we find one of the most powerful accounts of God’s grace in the Old Testament in the book of Jonah.
Christians sometimes think that the God of the Old Testament was an angry, unforgiving God, until he poured out his wrath on Jesus. Yet we see here that when God reveals himself in all his glory, he describes himself in terms of his grace, love and mercy.
His mercy winds its way through the Bible from Genesis to Revelation. Because Jesus says he does nothing but what he sees his father in Heaven doing, we know that his life and death reflects his Father’s great desire: that we be forgiven and reconciled with him.